A small crowd of people had formed around a payment machine at the 3rd and A Street parking garage in San Rafael on a recent afternoon, clearly flummoxed at what lay ahead of them if they wanted to go anywhere.
“Does anyone know how to use this thing?” a woman asked.
There was a brief silence.
Confidently, a worldly gentleman strode forward and proceeded to demonstrate by inserting his parking ticket into the left side of the machine, followed by the credit card that he was paying with. The man then gave point-by-point instructions, focusing his attention on the woman who had asked the question. He paused to make sure she knew that if she was paying cash, that there was an area on the right side of the machine to insert her dollar bills.
Then, as quickly as he appeared, the man snatched up his paid parking slip and headed off to retrieve his car, leaving the half-dozen people to try to manage it on their own.
This was not the first time I had witnessed such a situation while exiting the garage after an afternoon visiting downtown merchants and having lunch at Uncle Wings Chinese Restaurant, over on B Street.
It’s old news that parking machines are replacing parking garage attendants in cities around the nation, including San Rafael. There are even credit card parking meters on Fourth Street now that must be paid for in advance of parking. If things keep up, one imagines, we might even see a Robo-Cop Meter Maid.
When parking at a garage like 3rd and A, or any of the parking lots in the city, people must carry their parking slip with them, and pay for the space before returning to their vehicles. There is signage that says this when entering the garage, and it is noted on each parking slip.
Still, the prospect of dealing with new technology saps the courage and basic intellect out of some people, creating moments like this in San Rafael, as well as general disdain from people who don’t know how to use them.
In fairness to these parking luddites, the instructions on the machine itself are rather vague, and with very rough graphics in place of words are more for right brain thinkers than for left. Definitely for visual learners, not people that are looking for simple, written out instruction, or perhaps a cheerful video of actual human beings operating the big metal thing.
Some cities have actually created videos that do exactly that, featuring city officials making a payment transaction. Buffalo, New York, is one innovative city – their video is "How to use a Parking Meter 101". It's worth watching and even bookmarking since their machine is similar in design to the ones in San Rafael.
Maybe it is time for city officials or someone from the Downtown Business Improvement District to come to the aid of the citizenry and create their own “how to” video for paying at the parking machines, that could be played for people as they fidget and gasp over how to get out of the city parking facility.
At least some written instructions would be handy.